Business trip or junket? Houston officials take Super Bowl trip on public dime

Saturday, March 5, 2016
Houston officials take Super Bowl trip on public dime
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Houston officials take Super Bowl trip on public dime

The publicly funded organization whose job it is to run Houston's performing arts and convention facilities sent a gaggle of officials, and a few of their spouses to last month's San Francisco-based Super Bowl 50 -- all on the public dime.

The organization is called Houston First and it sent 12 executives and several spouses, spending $16,500 on Super Bowl tickets alone.

The average cost on one of the group's game tickets: $1,500 in public money.

When one tallies all the public money for the Houston First crew and officials from the Houston mayor's office, the total cost adds up to $85,000 for a couple of days in San Francisco.

Officials from Houston First, which is funded by a large chunk of the city's hotel tax, said this was a trip to learn about how to run a Super Bowl.

"It would have been irresponsible for us not to have sent folks there to understand how to better execute this event," said Mike Waterman, executive vice president of Houston First, who is also the Visitor's Bureau CEO.

But Houston First isn't in charge of Houston's Super Bowl week slated for next year. Its mission is to make sure Houston looks good doing it.

Some city leaders weren't happy about the Houston First Super Bowl sojourn.

"We're dealing with a budget crisis here," Houston Councilman Dwight Boykins said.

Indeed, the city controller predicted last month that Houston will enter the 2017 fiscal year with a $140 million shortfall and said that layoffs of city workers are likely.

Boykins saw the Houston First trip first-hand. He went to the game -- paying his own way.

Councilman Dave Martin was there, too. Martin also paid his own freight.

When Boykins and Martin landed in San Francisco, the pair shared an Uber to their hotel. but As they squeezing into the Prius, Martin glanced over and saw the official Houston First delegation.

"They were getting ready to get into a limo," Martin said.

Houston First told abc13 that it was a limo van for seven people.

"For efficiency and to save money several Houston First team members shared a limousine shuttle service for transportation from the airport to the hotel, not individual limos or cabs," Houston First officials said asked about the limo.

But it appears they all had a good time, if photos can be believed. We show some of them in the video above.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who serves on the upper chamber's Finance Committee, also had a problem with the trip.

"This is excessive," he said, when showed spending documents and photos of the trip. "You just hope everyone would use discretion."

Houston First sent its CEO, its chief financial officer and its visitor's bureau chief too.

All three more brought their spouses on this so-called business trip.

The spouses paid their own airfare and meals.

And Houston First officials said they reimbursed the Super Bowl committee for spouses' game tickets when they got back. That is also the same day Ted Oberg Investigates asked for expense reports.

The Super Bowl committee has no checks from any of the spouses and it's not noted in any documents we received. As it relates to the checks, Houston First officials said, "reimbursement checks have been written, but waiting on invoice from Super Bowl."

In addition, at the big game Waterman apparently didn't want to miss a second of the action so he bought some food on the public dime and had it delivered to his seat.

He said he was trying out a food ordering app he may want to bring to Houston for Super Bowl 51.

"I think that was the most expensive burger and coke I ever had," Waterman said. "The app said 'order and we will deliver it to your seat.' I thought that was really cool and I gave it a try."

The NFL also threw in tickets for its exclusive pre-game tailgate.

There the Houston First gang mingled with Mayor Sylvester Turner, his daughter and his daughter's friend.

They were along as guests of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.

It's unlikely they were talking about the mayor's speech at City Council just four days earlier.

"If I am forced to lay off large numbers of city employees the cuts in services in your district will be real," Turner said during the February 2 council meeting.

It makes Martin wonder if city layoffs hit, will his colleagues wonder if this money could have been better spent.

"When we're talking about layoffs and a budget crisis we should reduce the number of folks going on the city nickel," the councilman said. "We should have done that."